French Bureaucracy: How to Tackle it With the Right Dossier

French Bureaucracy: How to Tackle it With the Right Dossier

Dealing with French Bureaucracy
© pierreolivierclement / 123RF

Before moving to France, my husband and I had heard horror stories of the French bureaucracy that would torture us on arrival. We encountered our first taste of it while applying for visas at the French Consulate in Los Angeles. We collected our essential documents and decided to figure out the rest once we got to Paris. Even so, I spent hours on the internet preparing for our move, hoping to avoid some of the stress. Along the way, I discovered the dossier, essential for navigating French bureaucracy.

dossier - French Bureaucracy
© Whitney Donaldson


What is it? Essentially, a dossier is a group of documents (and their copies) that prove your worth to various institutions like banks, landlords and utility companies.

But what would go into our dossier? Most of what I found online didn’t apply to all circumstances; they focused on one task or problem. Without a comprehensive list, I decided to create one based on my own experiences settling in Paris.

The Process of Building Our Dossier

Every task required something slightly different and, over time, we distinguished the necessary from the nice to have. We even started to organize things based on their worth. It’s true, some documents are favored – ahem, EDF (electricity) bill. Current utility bills are considered the ultimate proof of current residency. A lease is seen as less important because it doesn’t prove that you are currently occupying the space (via sublease or other means).


A word of caution: the list might appear to be straightforward, but completing it is not. Generally, you cannot apply for anything without proof of residency, and getting a residence is impossible without a dossier – so it’s quite the catch 22.

Before Leaving

Our freshly-printed visas were accompanied by the standard documents that proved our identity and nationality. Our first step in Paris: securing official translations of them.

File Away:

  • the standards: birth certificate, marriage certificate, passports, drivers licenses
  • official translations of birth and marriage certificates
© Whitney Donaldson
© Whitney Donaldson


I emailed our banker to find out what we needed to open our account just before our first rendez-vous. She replied: “we need your passports, proof of recent address and proof of tax.”

But which papers would suffice? Past US tax returns and the letter from our leasing office (a temporary place) would work fine. We postponed the meeting and rounded up the right documents. A week later, we had a brand new French bank account. And, finally, an idea of what to expect (and bring) for future appointments

File Away:

  • tax documents
  • pay stubs
  • proof of residency

apartments for rent

Apartment Hunting

While we scouted for a place to live, it became clear that if you’re serious, you submit your dossier right then and there. Each landlord has different requirements, but there is one constant: you must prove you can pay rent.

For our current apartment, we gave them everything: birth and marriage certificates, work contract, pay stubs, tax information and more. We even threw our resumes in for good measure.

On the way out of our final appointment (with the green light from the owner), our agent slyly said, “by the way, the owner also works in advertising” It made me wonder: did my advertising-filled resume sway his verdict in our favor? I like to think so…

File Away:

  • proof of salary/employment
  • proof of rent payments for last two months
  • resumé (why not?)

Moving In

The place was ours. But before we signed the lease, we were told insurance was non-negotiable. Fortunately, it was a quick, easy job for the bank. When we officially moved in, we established an EDF account. The utility bill and attestation d’assurance were swiftly added to our dossier.

File Away:

  • electric or gas bill
  • insurance statement


Cell Phone

During our first month, we were determined to get French phone numbers. On our way, I picked up the dossier on a whim. At the shop, our rep requested a few things that I was able to present without hesitation, including our RIB.

RIB stands for relevé d’identité bancaire; it’s the details for your bank account. The numbers indicate the coordinates of your branch and your account number. With a RIB, payments for cell phones and more are directly debited. RIBs are found in the back of your checkbook or can be printed from the bank website.

File Away:

  • RIB
titre de sejour application
© Whitney Donaldson

Carte de Séjour

The carte de séjour is a renewable residence permit. There are different types based on your current situation (such as student, spouse, worker, etc.) and time frames (from short-term to permanent).

To apply for my carte de séjour (type: vie privée et familiale), I visited my husband’s office and handed over a hefty stack of paperwork. Weeks later, my husband received an email directing me to the prefecture for my récépissé (a document acknowledging your application, which allows you to stay in France while your application is under review). My carte de séjour followed a few months later.

File Away:

  • proof of residency via utility bill or insurance
  • passport-sized photos
carte vitale
© Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

Carte Vitale

A Carte Vitale is France’s health insurance card. It’s available to both French citizens and foreigners who qualify for a social security number. So far, it’s been tricky to secure ours. Our first appointment went well; we were even sent off with a smile. But after a few weeks of waiting for our little green cards, we received a letter instead. It said that my husband’s birth certificate was illisible (illegible).

Since that is not the case, we confirmed with Assurance Maladie that we would need an Apostille from our home country. An Apostille is a form of authentication for documents to become valid internationally. For us, the Carte Vitale is still a work in progress.

Note: I’ve heard that not everyone is required to have an Apostille, but if you don’t want to leave it to chance, try to get yours ahead of time.

File Away:

  • birth certificates with Apostille
Whitney Donaldson and husband
Author and husband © Whitney Donaldson


The dossier can’t be prepared prior to moving to France. Establishing your life here and building the dossier will happen simultaneously. Keep moving forward with patience and persistence. And as you file away each document, remember that they mark your victories – each one a successful encounter with French bureaucracy.

Bon courage!

Share your own experience!

Have some advice that can help others? We’d love to hear from you! We invite you to leave a comment in the reply box below this article.

Whitney Donaldson is a new arrival to Paris. Her scientist husband was offered a job and the newlyweds couldn’t refuse an opportunity to live abroad. Originally from a small suburb of Washington DC, she spent five years in Los Angeles working in advertising on a wide range of clients. She keeps herself busy with freelance work, exploring the city, learning French and, of course, writing. Whitney is anxious to take advantage of all that Europe has to offer and excited to show upcoming visitors what Paris is all about. She is documenting their adventures and expat experiences on her blog


  1. Excellent! I am French but cab relate soooo much to everything you say about this sacred dossier!!! Glad you took the whole “bureaucracy” experience so positively though… You can be proud of yourself as many of us loose our temper on this!!!


five + two =

All comments are moderated. If you don't see your comment right away, please be patient. It may be posted soon. There's no need to post your comment a second time. Thank you!